Tuh. Lumiere festivals are like buses. You wait ages for one to come along, then you get two at once. However, for non-obsessives who live in Durham or London, you get one festival every two years. Durham has just had its festival, now it’s London’s turn.
Lumiere London is possibly the greatest coup that County Durham culture has pulled off. Durham’s festival was already one of the most popular and most prestigious festivals over the whole of the north-east, now it has been exported to London and proved a hit there too. In fact, if there was anything at all to fault of Lumiere London, it’s that it was too popular, with more people coming to see it than anyone had expected.
So, as usual, here’s my preview based on what I’ve previously seen in Durham. I cannot give the lowdown on every single installation coming to London’s way – most of them are things that are completely new to Lumiere – but a lot of them have been to Lumiere Durham before. This is where I can lend my expertise.
What to expect from Lumiere as a whole
It’s common knowledge in Durham now, but Lumiere Durham spent its first six years experimenting with different formats, in p[articular management of crowds. You think crowding in Lumiere London 2016 was bad? That’s nothing compared to Lumiere Durham 2011, where crowding got so insanely bad it was almost impossible to move anywhere in the city centre. This prompted Artichoke to make a lot of changes, most notably installing ticket gates over the city centre. Tickets were free but limited, to keep numbers down to something manageable.
But this solution was out of the question for London. It was unthinkable that you could close off an area of London’s West End for a light festival, no matter how popular it is. But doing nothing was probably not an option either – the lesson learnt from Durham’s second Lumiere is that it was a lot more popular than the first. 2016 was just about manageable, but any more would be a nightmare.
In the end, London has gone for the expensive solution, and a solution that could only have been justified with the popularity of the first festival: a much bigger festival, covering a much bigger area. There are a whopping 54 installations* this time round, almost twice the number of London 2016 or any of the Durham Lumieres. And whilst Lumiere 2016 was centred on two areas (West End and King’s Cross), this time it’s spread out over six distinct areas. Most of the western half of Central London will be in easy reach of something Lumiere.
* Fine print: they’ve slightly cheated to get this numnber. Some of the installations are permanent things situated there all year round, included a few things that have been around since the previous Lumiere. However, even taking this into account, it’s still a considerably bigger festival than anything before.
There’s one other change I’ve noticed in the programme. One of the difference between Durham and London I noticed last time was the prevalence of “clever” installations in London include an awful lot of profound quotes in neon letters. This never really caught on in Durham (and I never saw the appeal of this myself), but they made a comeback in London. Were the tastes of Londoners different? Perhaps not, because this line-up is dominated by bright lights that look pretty. And if that’s what people want to see, that’s what they should do.
One final small change is the extended time. Last time the festival ran 6.00 – 10.00. This time, it’s 5.30 – 10.30. Whilst this hasn’t quite gone to the lengths of Durham, which now runs 4.30 – 11.00, it’s a no-brainer to do. The more time you have to spread out the crowds, the better.
So, will this plan work? Will a bigger festival manage the crowds? It’s a tough call. Overcorrect and the lights and crowds will spread out too thin and stop feeling like a festival. Undercorrect and no-one will be able to move. There’s only one way to find out. By Sunday morning, one way or the other, we should know the answer.
So let’s get to business. What’s coming to London that I can recommend. Well, this time I’ve had to be picky. There are a lot of installations that I recognise from previous festivals, a lot of which I liked, but in order to keep this list manageable, I’ve had to go for the most memorable ones of all. So those installations I saw at Durham that aren’t on this list aren’t ones to avoid – it’s just that they got edged out in tough competition.
And, of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list. Even with a long list of installations that I’ve already seen at Durham, there’s a lot more that I don;t know about, and there’s always something outstanding every festival from people I’d never heard of.
So without further ado, here we go.
This narrowly missed on on my list of festival highlight from the Lumiere Durham just gone – but I’m keen to see this one again. A common theme of many of my favourites of Lumiere is simple ideas put to brilliant use. This idea could not be simpler – a set of circles, lighting of one colour on the inside, lighting of another colour on the outside – and yet it does so much. Sometimes it looks like a sun or glowing planet – another times, it almost looks like a hole in the wall the piece rests on. It’s often difficult to describe what a light installation looks like in text or even photos, but this is one that needs to be seen to be believed. Catch it.
Now for a rare entry in Lumiere recommendations: an installation I don’t know, from an artist I don’t know, in a location I don’t know, but had nonetheless grabbed my interest enough to get into the recommendations. Some of the best installations at previous festivals have worked by simply letting physics and optics do the artistry, and the famous glass polyhedron is such obvious thing to do it’s a wonder why his hasn’t been done before. Such a simple idea, but done right we can expect it to be stunningly effective.
This projection comes form Novak, the same people who did the excellent Fool’s Paradise on Durham Castle in 2015, but Voyage actually pre-dates this. It made its Lumiere debut in 2013 in Derry-Londonderry. This one never made it to Durham so I haven’t seen it, but judging from the video, it looks just as good. This is due to a combination imaginative artwork and some innovative projects making the best use of the contours of the building. Whether it’s moving walls of a department store or a giant worm bursting through castle walls, Novak have a way of transforming buildings that few can live up to.
Another example of one of the most popular intallations being one of the simplest, this time with a quirky twist: a red phone booth on the outside with a fish tank on the inside. It was one of the most memorable pieces in Durham back in 2011, and clearly must have been one of the most memorable pieces in London too, having been part of Lumiere last time and coming back. The only thing I’m hoping for is some better-organised crowd management, as opposed to 2016’s free-for-all. That year the experience was spoilt somewhat spoiled with jostle-jostle-jostle-selifie-selfie-jostle-selfie. Hopefully a proper queue will make it a better experience for everyone.
Now another pick from something I’ve never heard of simply because I like the sound of it. There’s a pair of installations coming to the West End from the same artist: one of flamingoes, and another of butterflies. The reason I have good expectations of this is because of a good precedent set by Garden of Light. Bright colourful objects such as the plants from two years ago have worked very well in both London and Durham, so here’s my hunch that these bird and butterflies will deliver the same.
This one, however, is Durham’s pride and joy. Although the vast majority of attractions at Lumiere Durham come from outside the area, a small number of local artists are supported through the Brilliant scheme. They have varying levels of success, but by the the biggest has been Mick Stephenson. He came back for three festivals running with new works, and this most recent one – a model of Durham Cathedral’s Rose Window made entirely from plastic bottles – is the one coming to London this time. This is quite a long backstory as to why this was created, which I don’t have time to explain in one paragraph (there’s a fuller story in the Lumiere 2016 preview if you’re interested), but short version, this is a must-see. Don’t miss it.
For anyone who saw this last time, this final recommendation will come as no surprise. The most iconic image of the first Lumiere London surely had to be this breathtaking sight of Westminster Abbey lit up. There are plenty of other buildings that have been lit up this way before, but Westminster Abbey has to be one of the building best suited to this, and Patrice Warrener’s way of picking out all the individual figures on the wall was exquisite. If this is back due to popular demand, there’s no finer installation they could have chosen.
So there’s your picks. Lumiere London officially starts on Thursday, but if you want to skip the crowds, you can probably see a lot of the installations on Wednesday when they are being tested. Have fun, and I will join you on Saturday.